Celebrity Liquor Brands: Are They Any Good? Putting Timberlake, Clooney, Drake, and McConaughey through the wringer.
Scott Meslow is a culture critic whose other bylines include GQ, Vulture, The Week, and The Atlantic
It’s not hard to see why celebrity-backed liquor brands get a bad rep. Imagine spending your whole career perfecting a skill—and then suddenly, Tom Cruise wanders into your office and says, “Hey! You know who can do your job just as well as you can? Me.”
Love it or hate it, celebrity-backed liquor brands are here to stay. It’s easy to see why: you know how you might get really into craft beer and brew up some growlers in your basement? Celebrities have the exact same impulse. They also have enough clout to get their pet project onto store shelves around the world—and, of course, to make a little extra money on the side. When you have Elon Musk adding to his already-overstuffed portfolio with a “Teslaquila,” you know you’re on the verge of a major trend in liquor.
These deals come in many shapes and sizes. Some celebrities just lend their name to a liquor label, which offers a cynical kind of win-win: the celebrity gets the cache of being attached to a bottle of booze, and the booze company gets PR (and a likely sales boost) after being associated with an eye-catching name.
But there are a few companies where celebrities did more than just shoot a commercial and slap their name on a bottle—liquors in which famous people actively collaborated with professional distillers on a bottle of their own. So for this project with The GentleManual, I decided to track down four liquor brands who claim that big-name celebrities actually had a hand in crafting the liquor itself. And for the record: all four of these brands are widely available—after gaining this perspective, you can try any of these liquors and judge for yourself.
When it comes to making quality booze, does being famous give you an edge? It was, uh, a mixed bag:
Sauza 901 Triple-Distilled Tequila
The price: Around $30
The celebrity: Justin Timberlake
How big a role did the celebrity play? Well, it’s named after the area code for Memphis, where Timberlake grew up. But while Timberlake launched 901 less than a decade ago, the brand has already gone through some pretty dramatic changes. Three years after independently launching 901 in 2009, Timberlake’s tequila proved successful enough that it caught the eye of Beam Suntory, which reached out to Timberlake with a (presumably lucrative) offer for a relaunch—complete with a new formula—under the Sauza brand. In a 2014 interview, Beam President Bill Newlands praised Timberlake’s “passion” for tequila—and then conceded that, yes, Timberlake’s “ability to influence” was a nice perk.
How does the celebrity drink it? Timberlake’s personal mixologist—which, yes, is a thing he has—says Timberlake likes a cocktail that mixes Sauza 901, lemonade, iced tea, and agave syrup. (It’s essentially a boozy, lightly modified Arnold Palmer.)
The nose: Floral and honey.
The taste test: Sauza 901 is light, easy-drinking, and fairly sweet, with very little burn. Most of all, it’s smooth, which is what happens when you triple-distill a tequila. If you’re the kind of person who usually shoots tequila, try sipping this one. It’s not going to set the world on fire—but it’s a dramatic step above the rail tequila you’ll find at your local watering hole.
As far as I’m concerned, the real star of the Sauza 901 is the price point. For just a little more money than the price of one of Sauza’s cheaper brands, you can grab the 901 and get a silver tequila with a little more character. That said: If you’re going to be mixing it with, say, Sauza’s own sugary margarita mix, it doesn’t really make a difference—so there’s no point in springing for the 901 unless you want a bottle for sipping or tequila-forward cocktails.
If I had to sum up this bottle in a Justin Timberlake song title: “Right for Me”
Casamigos Reposado Tequila
The price: Around $40
The celebrity: George Clooney
How big a role did the celebrity play? Well, his signature adorns every bottle. But beyond the label, there’s a whole mythology about the history of Casamigos. According to the label’s origin story, Clooney and buddy Rande Gerber—hanging out at their respective vacation homes in Cabo San Lucas—began hunting for a great-tasting, easy-drinking tequila. When they couldn’t find one, they contacted a distiller in Jalisco, Mexico, and tinkered around until they found one they loved. For a few years, Casamigos was only shared privately among Clooney and Gerber’s family and friends, but the distillery eventually pushed them to take the brand to the masses. A little more than a year ago, Clooney sold the company to the massive liquor conglomerate Diageo for about $1 billion.
How does the celebrity drink it? Straight or on the rocks.
The nose: A little smoky, with heavy notes of vanilla and caramel.
The taste test: I will admit to a certain amount of skepticism about Casamigos’ romantic-sounding origin story—George Clooney or not, it’s pretty hard to accidentally start a billion-dollar company.
But I will concede: This is a great tequila, worthy of a spot on any enthusiast’s bar cart. The first thing you’ll taste is the sweetness, which lingers on the taste buds without ever becoming cloying, and eventually settles into a mild but pleasant spiciness. This is a tequila that manages to balance both versatility and depth of flavor. And if you’re traditionally a whiskey drinker, the Reposado—served either straight or on the rocks—might be exactly the gateway you need to become an agave devotee. (For the record, The Casamigos Reposado is aged in whiskey casks for seven months—but they also make a blanco, which is un-aged, and an anejo, which is aged for 14 months.)
If I had to sum up this bottle in a George Clooney movie title: Out of Sight
Virginia Black American Whiskey
The price: Around $40
The celebrity: Drake
How big a role did the celebrity play? It’s… kind of unclear? Virginia Black was produced in collaboration between Drake and Brent Hocking, who founded DeLeón Tequila. As for Drake’s role… Well, he posted about Virginia Black a bunch on his Instagram. He hawked it on Fallon. He shot a couple goofy commercials with his dad.
How does the celebrity drink it? Judging by his Fallon appearance, he’ll chug a whole glass on the rocks.
The nose: Maple syrup and brown sugar.
Tasting notes: This is a weird one. It’s somehow, simultaneously, way too sweet and way too shallow: First you’ll taste a lot of sugar, and then you’ll taste… nothing. The brand brags of a high-rye content, but I couldn’t detect any of that. Virginia Black is so saccharine that I checked the box to make sure I hadn’t purchased a flavored bottle by mistake. In short: Virginia Black is, at best, a whiskey for people who don’t like whiskey. (It’s also bottled in Indiana, not Virginia, so make of that what you will.)
I guess you could use Virginia Black for a whiskey and Coke—but only if you feel like whiskey and Coke isn’t already sweet enough. Other than that: Pour it straight down the drain.
If I had to sum up this bottle in a Drake song title: “Doing it Wrong”
Wild Turkey Longbranch Kentucky Bourbon
The price: Around $40
The celebrity: Matthew McConaughey
How does the celebrity drink it? Neat.
How big a role did the celebrity play? McConaughey has been the “creative director” of Wild Turkey for a while now, but Longbranch is his baby—a partnership with master distiller Eddie Russell that took two and a half years of experimentation. The goal was a Kentucky bourbon that blended seamlessly with McConaughey’s home state of Texas (in this case, by steeping the whiskey in mesquite wood).
The nose: Smoky and peppery with a hint of molasses.
Tasting notes: Smooth and a little sweeter than your average bourbon. You can see why McConaughey insists on drinking it neat; even a little ice would dilute a bourbon that’s pleasant enough to drink, but devoid of any truly distinctive qualities.
It’s hard to say anything bad about Longbranch, because this is the kind of bourbon that’s approachable enough to please pretty much any drinker. But when you can get a bottle of Wild Turkey’s flagship bourbon at literally half the price, there’s no reason to spring for the Longbranch.
If I had to sum up this bottle in a Matthew McConaughey quote: “Alright, alright, alright.”
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